After years of planning and political fighting, the decennial U.S. census begins today.
While the major push will begin in March in most states, the first count this year is taking place in a hard-to-reach fishing village in southwest Alaska called Toksook Bay. The state's sparsely-settled areas have been the first to be counted since 1867, U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham explained to Cheddar, because the area becomes difficult to get to and more dangerous to traverse once the snow and ice start melting.
The full U.S. count is expected to finish in August.
The months of counting across the U.S. are essential, Dillingham emphasized. The results determine how federal funds are distributed to public entities like schools and hospitals and for infrastructure and public services. It also determines how many seats states receive in the House of Representatives, the number of electors, and helps to draw congressional district lines.
Although door-to-door efforts are underway in Alaska, Dillingham noted that new technology allows people to respond "anytime and anywhere."
Now that respondents can answer online, in addition to over the phone or by mail, questions about security become more prominent, but Dillingham said the process "is safe because the law provides that this information can only be used for producing statistics and, if we violate that, we'd go to prison for a long time.".
"The Census Bureau has an excellent track record," he added. "Your information is protected."
Dillingham said the bureau expects about 60 percent of households to self-respond, but he hopes that number gets higher. "Whenever households self-respond, it saves American taxpayers more than $100," he said
That can add up. The Census Bureau is funded by Congress, but some states are spending their own funds to boost census efforts. California, the nation's largest state, and 25 others are spending near a third of a billion dollars to ensure residents respond to the census. On the other hand, 24 states, 17 of which are led by Republican legislatures and governors, are not spending a dollar. Tight budgets may be partly to blame, but critics contend an accurate census would include more "hard-to-count" groups, like Asians, Hispanics, and poor voters, who may tend to vote for Democrats. A bill to commit $50 million to a census response failed in Republican-led Texas despite a large and growing population of immigrants.
The Trump administration had made a failed attempt to add a question to this year's census inquiring about citizenship. However, critics said the question could make non-citizens, many of whom are found among minority populations who traditionally vote for Democrats, unlikely to respond to the census, skewing the results in favor of Republicans. The Supreme Court blocked the question after dozens of states, cities, and groups sued the administration, claiming the addition of the question was politically motivated and would decrease participation in the questionnaire that helps appropriate funding and voting power.
Dillingham notes the Census Bureau employs counters to tally people not living in traditional residences, such as those individuals experiencing homelessness, in order to increase participation.
"We have special efforts in those communities and use special procedures," he said. The bureau sends "people out in the middle of the night working in pairs to find those people," he said.
"Wherever they may be, we can work with them and make sure we can get them counted."